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'Pretty brutal, but well worth it' | Union workers at Davenport's Eaton plant go on strike

365 union members from Locals 388 and 1191 are now on strike against Eaton Corporation, saying the latest contract offer from Eaton falls flat in three key areas.

DAVENPORT, Iowa — Union workers at Eaton Corporation's West Davenport location are officially on strike. 

A total of 364 members from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, representing Locals 388 and 1191, say the contract offered by Eaton falls flat on wages, healthcare and retirement. 

The strike officially began at midnight on Friday, Feb. 18. 

Eaton's Davenport plant is one of the Quad Cities' largest employers, with roughly 850 local workers. The facility was bought out from Cobham Mission Systems last February for $2.8 billion. 

Located on Hickory Grove Road, the plant specializes in contract work with the government, making aerial refueling equipment, fuel tank inerting systems and environmental products for the military as well as aerospace companies, according to a spokesperson. Worldwide, the corporation has more than 87,000 employees. 

Members of the IAM union began gathering outside Eaton's gates early Friday morning. Their first day of striking was met with brutally cold temperatures and an unforgiving mid-February wind. 

"The wind has been pretty rough," said Mike Roberts, a machinist from Moline. "Pretty brutal. But well worth it!" 

"Every now and then I'll just turn and face the sun, get the nose back to feeling both nostrils breath again," laughed Kevin Wetherell, an assembler at Eaton from Rock Island. He spent most of his shift dancing, to help keep his feet warm. "Got to have a couple of hard days here and there, you know, but I'll get my Chapstick on or get more layers on and I'll get more tunes and dance if I have to!" 

For many of the members, this is their first strike. It's also the first contract they were ever offered from Eaton. 

John Herrig, IAM's district 6 business representative, told News 8 that when Eaton bought the plant in Feb. 2021, the old contract from Cobham was grandfathered in with the transition. 

The exact details of the rejected contract have not been made public at this time, but union members tell News 8 it didn't have the cost of living adjustments they wanted to see, while also including "substantial takeaways" in healthcare and retirement plans. Several employees specifically noted that the rejected contract would have impacted 401k matches in a way they felt was unfair. 

"We're not asking for anything outlandish. We just want what's fair," said Paris Dothard, an Air Separation Technician from Rock Island. 

Eaton Corporation sent a statement to News 8, reading: 

"We remain surprised that some of our employees have decided to strike, especially since Eaton and the Union were so close to a deal at the time the Union chose to strike. The parties reached tentative agreements to provide more vacation, greater scheduling certainty and flexibility, additional leave, and on an agreement on retirement and health care plans. While the parties did not reach an agreement on wages, they were only marginally apart at the time the Union went on strike."

But even with the freezing temperatures, spirits remained high along the picket line through day one. A steady chorus of honks and cheers could be heard all afternoon. 

"It's freezing. But the support we're getting from passing by cars, like, that's what it's about. That's what the union stands for: solidarity, togetherness, all that stuff," Dothard said. "What we want right now is the support from our local community, because that's how we get what's fair to us." 

And already, the outreach has started to pour in. One person brought McDonald's sandwiches while News 8 was filming that afternoon. Others mentioned UAW members had stopped by with supplies. 

"They dropped off hand warmers and gloves and all kinds of stuff. That's the solidarity that the union brings," Dothard said. Last fall, when UAW members were on strike against Deere & Company, Dothard had brought drinks and firewood out to the picket lines in Milan. "We all support each other." 

Now, the employees at Eaton are hoping for the same community support that UAW members were afforded. 

"I'm hoping we see the same thing across the board. A lot of local restaurants and bars and unions supported during John Deere," Wetherell said. "If we get half of what those guys were getting, as far as the coverage and support, it'll be huge for us." 

Despite the massive size of Eaton's global operations, one labor expert suggests the union might have a key advantage in negotiations. 

"You've got a highly skilled set of employees, which generally means in a particularly tight labor market — like we're in now — they're very hard to replace," said Jeff Hirsch, a law professor at UNC Chapel Hill. 

For many of Davenport's Eaton workers, each job is so technical that it can take months, even a year or more, to become fully trained. Hirsch says that will make it extremely difficult for the company to hire replacements. 

"The lack of suitable replacements is a huge problem for companies. And oftentimes, when you see a strike that is successful, it is, in large measure, because a company is simply unable to fill those spots in a time period that prevents a lot of loss," he said. 

On the other hand, some employees are alleging it shouldn't be particularly shocking that this strike is taking place, especially considering Eaton came in as new ownership. 

Ninety-eight percent of local union members voted to go on strike, the day before workers began picketing. 

"People get really frustrated when it's like, we're the people who have done this work for years and generated the profit from this enterprise," said Michael Childers, a professor of labor education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "They don't really see it necessarily as David and Goliath, because they just were the people who've worked here for years. It's just another company coming through, they'll sell us two or three years from now too."

Over the last few decades, the Davenport facility has been routinely bought and sold by a variety of corporations. 

"They're just like, you're the new guy. So we're the people that have been here, let us explain to you how it works here," said Childers. "It's a clash of culture." 

Both the IAM and Eaton Corporation have said they wish to return to the bargaining table as soon as possible, including the first day of the strike and the following weekend. Eaton said, on Friday morning, that it was in contact with the union. 

At this time, it has not been made public if that meeting has taken place. 

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